Red alert in Race Control

Text by Jonno Turner
The obsession
The unsung heroes
Red alert in Race Control Text by Jonno Turner
November 29, 2014. It’s a day that changed the Volvo Ocean Race forever.

When Team Vestas Wind, racing through the pitch black of the vast Indian Ocean, slammed unexpectedly into the Cargados Carajos shoals, some 200nm northeast of Mauritius, the whole sailing world took a deep breath.

But what was the view from Race Control? The guys in the nerve-centre of the operation at the Alicante HQ, they ran the emergency operation to get the sailors to safety from over 5,500 miles away.

We chat with Race Control Manager, Gonzalo Infante, to find out his memories of that fateful day, how it played out from his perspective - and the lasting impression the incident has left on the Volvo Ocean Race...

1510 UTC - Race Control informed

“I had just left the office,” Gonzalo remembers. “I’d done the watch that morning and was heading home when I received a call from Race Control. That in itself was nothing out of the ordinary – during the Race I’m on call 24 hours a day, and would receive calls almost daily.

“The voice on the other end of the line just said, ‘Team Vestas Wind has run aground’. I automatically went into crisis mode, turning the car around and heading back to the office. Dan, who was the Duty Officer at that moment, had been through the necessary emergency process with the boat. We knew that everyone was ok, but there are still many unknowns in a Mayday situation.”

What was your first task when you got into the office?

“Collect facts. Where is the boat? How heavily have they run aground? What’s the state of the boat? What search and rescue assets to we have available? What is the potential escalation of the situation? How could it degrade? It’s a very fast collection of information – and then we convened a crisis meeting, with the likes of Knut, Jack and communications.” 

2030 UTC - Team Alvimedica arrives

“The first thing you do in Race Control is check who is behind and who could assist. In this case it was Team SCA and Team Alvimedica. They were both informed just minutes after, so they could start preparing. Whenever we have a crisis, after we’ve evaluated everything and performed the actions we need, we always tell the fleet. Alvimedica was closest, so they diverted their course. It was absolutely critical in this situation that they were around. The reality is that sometimes it can be difficult to deal with local search and rescue crews, but having Team Alvimedica in close proximity meant that we were able to get direct information – they could relay what they were seeing to us. They helped to make sure that the local coastguard – which, remember, was just two guys in a RIB small open boat, at least that's what I recall – was heading in the right direction.” 

How tough is it to keep calm when faced with a situation like this?

"We do a lot of work before the Race starts to ensure that everyone keeps to proper protocol. From an external communication point of view, it’s very important to make sure that the information we have is 100% accurate before saying anything. You have to differentiate between what is fact and what is assumption. But, generally, we have a very professional approach to these kind of situations because we are used to them. We know it’s our job. We never lose calm. I always look at this aspect a lot when I’m recruiting for Race Control – you must have a calm personality, no matter what - it’s essential." 

2145 UTC - Team Vestas Wind deploy liferafts

"We knew the guys had the iSatPhone 2, but they had limited battery so we were only getting very intermittent updates. Every time we got an update we agreed on when the next one would come. We were involved in every phase of the situation. That's where Alvimedica were so helpful. They were relaying all the movements to us by VHF – 'now they’re stepping off the boat', 'now they’re getting in the life raft', 'they’re walking along the atoll', for example. Without them there it would have been much more difficult to keep the communication flow."

And whilst all this is happening, there are still five boats racing on ahead. How difficult is it to manage the situation so that you don't neglect the safety of the rest of the fleet?

"It’s a good question - that’s why the crisis itself is not managed inside Race Control. We have a Crisis Management Team. If there’s an emergency, Race Control takes care of the immediate response - call the coastguard, make the fleet aware, divert their course if necessary. It’s about working through the facts, quickly. Meanwhile, the Crisis Management Team makes the decisions – it’s very important to have a structure like this otherwise Race Control would collapse every time we had a crisis. So in essence there are two sides to an emergency: the immediate response, fact gathering; and then the broader decisions about what we’re going to do next. As a team, we work in harmony to try and minimise the impact." 

0300 UTC - Crew rescued by coastguard

When you know that the guys are in safe hands, how does your role change?

"At that point, we support them – obviously from the moment when they’re on the island it’s another operation in the background. The shore team and manager Neil Cox, are already starting to work on the salvage operation, the rescue. It’s no longer an emergency, it’s a crisis. Race Control keeps managing the race."

Would you say that the incident has impacted upon the way we operate the Race?

"Oh yes - it has had consequences. Basically, after every incident we debrief everything we did. This incident was significant so we wanted an independent party to investigate as we knew that it wouldn’t be valid if we did it ourselves. We convened an independent inquiry into the incident, the result of which is available for anyone to read, and there are some learnings in there - many are general best practice rules for offshore sailing, rather than particularly aimed at the Race.

"As the leading event in offshore sailing, we know that we can always improve, and we're trying to pioneer these changes across the board. From electronic charting, protocol and even measures like ensuring that everyone has proper education in passage planning and navigation techniques. We're definitely paying more attention to that.

"The circumstances aren't ideal, but it’s a chance to improve on everything you do. Not only how you operate internally, but how everything on the boat is set up, what software they have on board, how are the workloads onboard and how we manage the race. I think it’s key that when something like this happens, you embrace the opportunity to review everything, and don’t be scared of the situation. In my career, it's certainly the incident which has had the most consequences, and has impacted the Race the most."

Relive the drama of the Team Vestas Wind crash and the team's subsequent amazing return to the Race in our short video.